Leading Misinformation Expert Accused of Misinformation

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Her name is Joan Donovan and she was (maybe still is?) considered one of the country's leading experts on internet misinformation. But in 2023 she lost her staff job at Harvard's Kennedy School and subsequently filed a whistleblower complaint that was hundreds of pages long. 


The gist of her complaint is that the power and money of Facebook/Meta had pushed her out of her job after a specific confrontation that took place at a public event in October 2021. Here's Donovan herself explaining what happened to her.

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a very long and detailed story about Donovan. It's titled "The Distortions of Joan Donovan" and as you can probably tell it casts a skeptical eye on some of the specific claims she has made. Here, specifically, is what author Stephanie Lee found out about the October 2021 confrontation Donovan had, the one she says led to her downfall.

As Donovan would later recount in her whistle-blower declaration, she told the group, known as the Dean’s Council, that she had obtained her own copy of the confidential files — “the most important documents in internet history.” She expressed alarm that Facebook, which had just rebranded as Meta, was harming democracy. Among those listening was Elliot Schrage, a graduate of Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the Kennedy School. He was also, until 2018, Facebook’s oft-maligned head of communications and public policy. The two of them then had a conversation that — Donovan has repeatedly asserted — set in motion her downfall.

When the moderator opened up the floor for questions, according to Donovan’s disclosure, Schrage “monopolized the discussion by accusing me that my reading of the documents was inaccurate and that he disagreed with all prior discussion about Facebook.” Donovan claims that she “tried to answer Mr. Schrage’s allegations, but he kept speaking out angrily.” His conduct was “so overwhelming and disruptive,” she claims, that someone else “was forced to raise her voice in an attempt to try and calm Mr. Schrage.” The mood was “tense, awkward, and embarrassing for everyone involved.”

But a recording of the meeting contradicts that account. In a video the Kennedy School shared with me, Schrage is called on to ask a question, and begins by saying, “I disagree with a tremendous amount of the characterization and analysis that’s been provided, but that’s not the topic here.” He does not bring up the leaked Facebook files. He does ask Donovan how she defines misinformation, and whether television-news networks should be punished for reporting it. He also asks whether a company like Facebook should be obligated to take down a media outlet if the Philippine government considers it to be spreading falsehoods. In all, Schrage speaks for three minutes. Donovan responds uninterrupted for five-and-a-half, mostly to his first two questions.

“Thank you, Joan,” another council member says, then asks Donovan to discuss the subject of social media’s financial incentives. Two other attendees go on to raise questions that she also answers. Schrage does not speak again before the session ends, the recording shows.


Donovan's attorney suggested the video of the exchange might have been edited but there's no evidence of that.

What is true is that ten days after that meeting Douglas W. Elmendorf, the dean of the Kennedy School, contacted Donovan to set up a meeting to talk about her work. He says he was impressed with it but there was a problem. Donovan was a staff member, not a faculty member. Under Harvard's rules, only faculty members can lead research teams. Donovan didn't seem to get the distinction. 

In August of 2022, dean Elmendorf told Donovan that her project would have to be shut down by June of 2024, citing the policy about only faculty leading research. Donovan blamed Harvard and Elmendorf for her ouster, but at one point even considered filing a complaint accusing the school of sexism and homophobia. She also accused someone else at the Shorenstein Center of stirring up trouble but once again her description of what happened doesn't appear to be accurate.

Within the Shorenstein Center, which housed Donovan’s team and other media and politics researchers, tensions mounted. In her declaration, Donovan alleges that Laura Manley, the center’s executive director, tried to “sow discord” in a December 2022 meeting with an unnamed employee of hers. According to Donovan, who wasn’t there, Manley indicated that Donovan was looking out only for herself and planned to leave the team in the lurch. In Donovan’s telling, Manley encouraged the employee to report any problems with Donovan to human resources. Manley told me that Donovan “completely twists what happened.” Manley said that the vast majority of the conversation was about the employee’s future plans and that she tells all employees to consult HR with any questions they have about their affiliation with Harvard, regardless of the situation. Donovan claimed that an HR investigation deemed the incident “unprofessional conduct”; a Harvard spokesperson says this is inaccurate. Manley says she was never notified of any such investigation, as is required under Harvard policy. “This never happened, period,” she said.


About a month after the October 2021 meeting which Donovan has said was the beginning of the end for her, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donated $500 million to Harvard for a new AI research center.

None of the money is going to the Kennedy School, and Donovan doesn’t offer a theory for how it might have affected her status there. “That gift just has nothing to do with me,” Elmendorf told me, “and it played no role whatsoever.” In general, “the allegations by Joan of unfair treatment and donor interference are false,” he said.

Ultimately, Donovan's time at Harvard ended in August 2023, nearly a year earlier than the original plan of June 2024. She has since moved to Boston University.

The story ends with the author confronting Donovan with the various examples she's identified in which her story doesn't add up. They had a tearful phone conversation that lasted several hours. Finally Stephanie Lee just bluntly asked Donovan if she was guilty of spreading misinformation.

She was silent at first. “I do stand by what’s in the declaration,” she finally said, “and what I’ve said to you and how I’ve presented what happened to me. I didn’t make up anything. If I had, it would be easy to disprove.” Her voice broke. “I’m merely one woman in the world,” she went on, “and that’s it. And to go up against corporations like Harvard and Facebook is very scary. But that is my truth. That is what I know to be true — that I was on top of it one day, and I was under it the next.”


After the call ended, Donovan sent another 88 text messages over the days that followed. The tone kept getting darker.

Unprompted, she began to refer to shadowy forces working against her. “There are people who do want me dead,” she wrote. “This line of work is wild and I don’t wish it on anyone. I am looking into changing my legal name so that it’s difficult to hack or find out where I live, by socially engineering access to my banking or property records.” She wrote that she was afraid of being assaulted, of being murdered.

Donovan ultimately told author Stephanie Lee that the Chronicle article was proof that "Harvard and Meta chose you" suggesting that somehow Lee was now part of the grand conspiracy working against her.

It's pretty clear (at least to me) that Donovan is not a reliable narrator, even about her own story. The idea that she's considered an expert in misinformation is pretty chilling. The whole story is worth reading if you can spare the time.

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David Strom 8:16 PM | July 17, 2024